Are Slaves Growing Your Fair Trade Cotton?

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Dec. 15 2011 5:17 PM

Are Slaves Growing Your Fair Trade Cotton?

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Cotton fields in Africa.

Photo by ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

An amazing scoop from Cam Simpson* in Bloomberg (written up, unfortunately, in a slightly confusing way) about the sourcing of Victoria's Secret's organic fair trade cotton from Burkina Faso. It's grown, it turns out, in large part by children who are essentially being held as slave laborers.

This is in part just a story of exceptionally poor monitoring of a fair trade program. But there's actually a specific link as well between organic certification and forced labor. "Without herbicides and pesticides," Newton writes "Clarisse must defend the crop against weeds and other invaders -- by hand." In other words, organic agriculture is less capital-intensive and thus more labor-intensive than conventional agriculture, so paying a premium for organic cotton creates an extra incentive to add forced labor into the production mix. If you read the story you'll see that this isn't Dixie-style plantation slavery. There's no lord of the manner enjoying the good life as Clarisse labors in the fields. Rather, the farmer who she lives with and works for is very much actively engaged in the back-breaking work alongside her and is hardly living high on the hog. But he does want an extra pair of hands ot help him with the crop, and that means forcing Clarisse to work rather than attend school. It's a tragedy for her, personally, but also very much the kind of thing that will hold the country back over the longer-term.

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* Correction, the original version of the article stated that the author's name was Cam Newton.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.